(November 10, 2013 / JNS)
In her 15th book, prolific author and iconic second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler takes her readers on a trenchant and profoundly intimate sojourn, 50 years in the past, to a harrowing chapter in her life.
Chesler’s memoir, “An American Bride in Kabul,” features a duality of voices—one of a young, winsome, and naive Jewish woman seeking a glorious adventure, the other of a seasoned veteran with a here-and-now retrospective tone replete with an earthywisdom. The author adroitly creates the spellbinding narrative of a consummate raconteuse.
The year is 1961, and the young Chesler’s academic proclivities bring her to an American college on a full scholarship. It is there that she meets and falls deeply in love with an exotic man she would later refer to as an “Omar Sharif” lookalike. His name is Abdul-Kareem, a westernized, wealthy Muslim foreign student from Afghanistan.
Chesler and Abdul-Kareem craft their very own European salon of sorts, traversing intellectual and bohemian realms and engaging in endless hours of riveting conversation on esoteric matters. Her paramour’s offer of a grand tour of European capitals and a visit to his native Afghanistan, is impossible for Chesler to resist. Only one caveat, says Abdul-Kareem. They must get married, he says, or else they could not travel together. One suspects that he did not want to offend his family’s devoutly Muslim moral beliefs. And so it was.
Their time spent in Europe is the proverbial calm before the storm. When she arrives in Kabul, her American passport is taken from her in a trice, never to be returned. Most painfully, what is taken from Chesler is her youthful innocence—her freedom, independence, and dignity. The lessons she learns in Kabul link her inextricably to the feminist mission that will define her professional career.
Among the multitude of culture shockers in store for Chesler is the fact that her father-in-law is a polygamist. She is held captive in a “posh purdah” style of existence. Simply put, Chesler is now living in a veritable harem, against her will and with no way out.
“I am expected to live with my mother-in-law and other female relatives, wear hijab, and live in purdah. That means that I cannot go out without a male escort, a male driver, and a female relative as chaperones. I am also expected to convert to Islam. I am living in a culture where extreme gender apartheid is the norm and where my reactions to it are considered abnormal,” she writes.
As Chesler offers her nuanced perspective on life in Kabul for the five months she spent there, the reader is transported back in time, to an arcane land. We imbibe a plethora of sights, smells, and sounds of Kabul as Chesler experienced them.
“The daily routine is as follows: In the morning Abdul-Kareem and the men disappear and are gone all day. The women mainly stay at home. The servants clean and cook. Bebegul (her mother-in-law) stays in her own quarters and sews and hums to herself. She orders her servants about, checks on their work and sits in the garden,” Chesler writes.
As she battles a raging hunger each day because her mother-in-law has ordered the servants not to cook her food in Crisco, but in foul-tasting ghee, Chesler starts scrounging around for canned foods before she is beset with a horrible case of dysentery, and later the near-fatal hepatitis that killed most foreigners that year.
Now that her physical wellbeing is in jeopardy, her mother-in-law works on the spiritual end by coercing Chesler to convert to Islam. Fearing for her life, she reluctantly converts, and the guilt she harbors for doing so is reflected in her work.
Abdul-Kareem eventually becomes more bellicose. He takes to verbal tirades and begins hitting Chesler when he can’t keep her under the patriarchal grip that he would like to.
Severely weakened by the hepatitis, and fending off her mother-in-law who tries to kill her by pulling out the life-sustaining IV from her arm, Chesler concludes that she must escape at all costs. She beseeches the American consulate in Kabul to help her and is summarily refused because she has no U.S. passport. She then contrives a plan with the assistance of a foreign couple, but at that juncture, her dapper father-in-law intervenes and acquires an Afghani passport for her to leave on the grounds of her illness.
When Chesler kisses the ground at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York City, she carries with her a fierce determination to focus on the horrendous plight of women in Afghanistan.
Chesler and Abdul-Kareem reunite when he arrives in New York prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, and she even develops an amiable relationship with his children from another marriage. But his patriarchal arrogance emerges, and he chides her for not showing enough ambition about bringing Afghanistan into the modern world.
What makes this book so compelling is that Chesler’s personal narrative is juxtaposed with historical and factual insights into why she was treated like chattel. And it is precisely this part of the book that actually trumps her roller-coaster ride of a story.
Quoting a treasure trove of Western sources—mainly of American, British, French, and Scottish pioneering travelers who visited Afghanistan in the last few centuries—Chesler allows the reader a comprehensive understanding of the role of tribal warlords, of Afghani monarchy and the culture it engendered. The genesis of the inferior status of Afghani women and the “indigenous barbarism” they were subjected to is meticulously explored, as is the abject history of the Jews who were persecuted in economic, religious and social ways.
Chesler says, “I had no idea that historically Muslims had viewed themselves as superior to all infidels, but especially to Jews, whom they tolerated but also tithed, impoverished, humiliated, persecuted, exiled, and massacred.”
“Abdul-Kareem had loved me, he had loved a Jew. I do not doubt this. I loved him, too—although everything changed after my first month in Kabul,” she adds.
Her conversations with her ex-husband have a visceral intensity, and when she speaks of the tragic attacks on 9/11, we understand why this book as written. Afghanistan was the country she lived in, and it was there that the plans for these attacks were incubated.
Chesler is to be lauded for plunging into dark and treacherous waters, for penning a book in which each page is brimming with rich insights, and for serving as an avatar of inspiration for all oppressed peoples fighting for freedom.
“An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir,” by Phyllis Chesler, 256 pages, Palgrave Macmillan, October 2013.
Part of the JNS.org special section on Jewish books.